STD Symptoms in Females

STD symptoms aren't as obvious as you might think.

If you're sexually active, you're at risk of STDs (or STIs, aka sexually transmitted infections). A partner who has an STD might not show symptoms, and could potentially pass the infection on to you. Even practicing safe sex is no guarantee, since condoms aren't foolproof.

"Not all cases of every STI are symptomatic," Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, Florida, told Health. Even when people do develop symptoms, it can be easy to mistake them for another condition, like a yeast infection or urinary tract infection (UTI).

So if you're sexually active and something feels off, what you're feeling could be an STI symptom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 in 5 people in the US has an STI, which means that if you have one—you are not alone.

So what STI symptoms should you be concerned about? Here are the seven most common symptoms of STIs in females.

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The Most Common STD Symptoms

Symptoms of different STIs tend to overlap, and experiencing any of these could be a red flag. The symptoms aren't usually definitively diagnostic of a particular type of STI. And, keep in mind that having one of these symptoms doesn't automatically mean you have an STI—it could be something else, like a skin condition, hormonal changes, or a medication reaction.

Burning Sensation With Urination

If you feel like you're raining hellfire into the toilet when you go, an STI could be to blame. "This is probably the most common symptom that we see with STIs," Michael Angarone, DO, associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told Health.

The pain comes from inflammation in your urinary tract; bacteria can cling to the mucus membranes of the urethra (the tube pee comes out of), causing this inflammation, Dr. Angarone explained.

As a result, "you may get a lot of burning when you urinate and go to the bathroom a lot," Dr. Angarone said. STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis ("trich") can be the root cause.

Unusual Discharge

You know what's normal and not for you in the discharge department. And if things look off down there, it could be due to an STI like trichomoniasis, chlamydia, or gonorrhea. The reason goes back to inflammation; bacteria can cling to your reproductive tract, causing irritation and an unusual discharge, Dr. Angarone said.

Abnormal Vaginal Bleeding

Bleeding when it's not that time of the month is a little alarming, and an STI can be to blame. "High-risk HPV could affect the cervix, which can cause bleeding after sex," Dr. Greves said.

Inflammation in your reproductive tract can irritate the mucus membranes of your vagina and cause bleeding, explained Dr. Angarone.

In general, bleeding from. an STI tends to be described as spotting, and it's rarely a large amount of blood like what you would see when you have your period, a 2021 research article published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections said.

Burning or Itching Sensation of the Vagina

Vaginal itching and burning are the telltale signs of a yeast infection—but STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia can cause those symptoms, too. "The vaginal tissue is just more sensitive if you have an STI," Dr. Greves said. "It becomes inflamed and the normal protective mechanisms may be disrupted," Dr. Greves explained.

Pain During Sex

Painful sex is a tip-off that something isn't right. STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea can result in painful sex because they cause vaginal inflammation, said Dr. Greves.

Herpes can also lead to painful intercourse because lesions can form in your vagina and on your cervix, and then become irritated and inflamed during sex. "It can be very painful," Dr. Greves added.

Bumps On and Around the Vagina

Bumps can be a sign of several STIs, including genital herpes, HPV, syphilis, and molluscum contagiosum. If you develop a bump, sore, or wart, don't write it off—even if it goes away after a few days. Conditions like herpes will have flares that come and go, but you don't actually get rid of the virus when sores aren't visible, Dr. Greves cautioned.

Pelvic Pain

Just like painful sex, pelvic pain is a sign to pay attention to. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are known to cause this symptom. "Gonorrhea or chlamydia can contribute to pelvic pain because they can affect the vagina, and also spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes," Dr. Greves said.

Timing of STD Symptoms

The timing of when you start to notice symptoms after exposure depends on the infection.

  • Chlamydia symptoms can show up several weeks after you were infected, according to the CDC.
  • With gonorrhea, the CDC says that symptoms may develop between 1-14 days after you were infected.
  • Most people develop symptoms of herpes between 2-12 days after they were exposed, per the CDC, but a first flareup can happen months and years after you were initially exposed, Dr. Greves said.

Location of STD Symptoms

STI symptoms typically show up on the genitals, but you can also get symptoms all over your body, "really, anywhere near and far from the site of infection," Kjersti Aagaard, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine, told Health.

Herpes, gonorrhea, and chlamydia can also cause a fever and chills, Dr. Greves pointed out.

"There are even situations where STIs such as gonorrhea can cause rheumatoid symptoms in the joints; and syphilis can infect the brain to cause symptoms," Dr. Aagaard added.

Treatment

If you have signs of an STI, Dr. Aagaard said you need to get checked out right away. While your symptoms could be due to something else, they also could be an STI—and you don't want to sit on that.

"As soon as you feel symptoms, pick up the phone and get an appointment," Dr. Greves advised.

Untreated STDs

STIs can lead to serious complications, including permanent damage to your reproductive system that can make it difficult for you to get pregnant later on. And the CDC says that chlamydia, in particular, can also raise your risk of having a potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy, which is a pregnancy that happens outside the uterus.

STIs can also lead to a condition known as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a serious infection of reproductive organs such as the uterus and fallopian tubes. And PID can cause symptoms like lower abdominal pain, pain and bleeding when you have sex, and an unusual discharge with a bad odor, according to the CDC.

There's also this to consider, added Dr. Angarone: If you don't get your STI diagnosed and treated, you could end up spreading it to others. "The sooner you get it evaluated, the less likely you are to pass it on," Dr. Angarone said.

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